New database taps LinkedIn to watch the NSA watchers

Everyday people are transforming the way police officers behave thanks to the power of camera-enabled smartphones. Now, the advocacy group Transparency Toolkit wants to transform the way the national security state behaves using other common tech tools: Google and LinkedIn.

The spooks who store our calling metadata and online activity in a vast warehouse in Utah may seem, well, spooky. But at the end of the day those carrying out state-sponsored surveillance are just people, and people need jobs. We tend to think of intelligence professionals as lifetime government employees, but there are many people who are employed by private defense contractors. Edward Snowden, for example, worked for Booz Allen Hamilton when he obtained all the files he eventually shared with journalists.

All about the resume

“When you need a job, you need to post about what you can do, and in the intelligence community the necessary skills are things like intercepting communications, using secret surveillance databases, and analytics tools,” M.C. Grath, Transparency Toolkit founder, said during the re:publica conference in Berlin on Wednesday.

Believe it or not, LinkedIn is filled with people advertising their surveillance skills including proficiency with National Security Agency programs like XKeyScore or Dishfire.

This online resume building allowed Transparency Toolkit to search public LinkedIn profiles for keywords relating to NSA activity and then build a public database with all this information. Called ICWatch, the database features more than 27,000 resumes of people working in the intelligence community. (At this writing, however, ICWatch was offline.)

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Deciding on keywords must have been relatively easy since so many surveillance programs have surfaced via leaks from Edward Snowden and others. However, the searches also led Transparency Toolkit to discover previously unknown intelligence-related keywords and in some cases even conclude what those new keywords meant. 

Why this matters: Transparency Toolkit argues that collecting all this LinkedIn data allows the public to “better understand mass surveillance programs and research trends in the intelligence community.” ICWatch may certainly do that using what McGrath calls a “sousveillance state.” Instead of depending on leakers and journalists, scanning LinkedIn can employ NSA-style metadata analysis to get an idea of what the “watchers” are watching. But ICWatch may end up stonewalled in the future should the intelligence community enforce rules that prevent people from listing intelligence programs on their LinkedIn profiles.

Getting personal

ICWatch doesn’t just publicize data relating to surveillance activity, it also names names and shows photographs of the people working in the intelligence community. We could spend hours debating whether terrorists or other baddies would actually use this data to hurt intelligence workers or somehow co-opt them.

But there is a more present, and arguably more realistic, danger facing these people. Online life can sometimes turn quite vicious and it’s easy to imagine how this data could be used to gather more information about people with the goal of harassing them at home with threatening phone calls, late night knocks on the front door, or swatting.

“This isn’t a hit list,” McGrath said during re:publica. “I don’t think they’re all necessarily horrible people that you should demonize. My goal with this is to provide a face to the surveillance state, and a better mechanism for researching these programs and accountability.”

Let’s hope the rest of the Internet shares those ideals.

Nevertheless, ICWatch is a fascinating concept that may lead to a better understanding of where all your surveillance tax dollars are going.

This story, "New database taps LinkedIn to watch the NSA watchers" was originally published by PCWorld.